Punishment or limit setting?

August 15, 2013

One of the main concerns raised by parents when introduced to the concept of punishment free parenting is that it means there would be no limits or boundaries. If children are not punished when they do the wrong thing this must mean they are simply allowed to run riot and do whatever they like.

This is of course a major misconception. Punishment free parenting does not mean parenting without limits or boundaries. It just means what it says; parenting without punishment. The problem is parents not knowing how to set limits or boundaries without punishment.

But I don’t just mean parents who stick to the old conventional parenting methods. On the other side of the coin I think there’s a danger of being so fearful of issuing a punishment that we can fail to set limits where they’re needed.

scooterWhat I’ve come to realise is that the big difference between the two approaches lies not always in what we do, but in how we do it. Here’s an example:

My child is riding his scooter up and down our street. I’ve given him a clear point, say a lamp post, to which it is safe for him to go, and at which point he must turn around and come back each time.

The limit setting:
“Don’t you go past that lamp post. Turn round at the lamp post.”
The warning:
“I told you not to go past that lamp post. If you do that again I’m taking your scooter away for the rest of the day.”
The follow through:
“Right, that’s it. Give me that scooter. It’s going away until tomorrow. I told you not to go past the lamp post. That’s naughty!” Parent angrily snatches scooter from child, and ignores his cries and tears, continuing to scold him as he cries, or possibly sending him into time-out or to his room until he ‘stops this noise’ or ‘has had a think about his behaviour’.

This is clearly a punishment. But obviously we can’t allow a child to continue to breach the boundary. So what can we do?

The limit setting:
“You need to turn around and come back when you get this far. It’s not safe to go any farther down the road in case a car comes round the corner. What do you think would be a good marker; the lamp post or this red car?.”
The warning:
“It’s really fun scooting down the road. I bet you wish you could keep going for miles and miles. I need to keep you safe, so you must turn round at the lamp post like we agreed. Can you remember to do that? We’ll have to put the scooter away and find something else to play if you can’t. Would you like to draw a finish line or a Stop sign with your chalks?”
The follow through:
“I won’t let you scoot past this lamp post. I must keep you safe. We’ll have to put the scooter away and find another game to play. Perhaps we could take your scooter to the park tomorrow where you can go further?” Child cries. “I know, you were having fun on your scooter. I won’t let you scoot where it’s not safe, so I’ll have to put it away for now. Let’s have a big cuddle. You’re feeling upset now.”

In both scenarios the end result, in practical terms, is that the child’s scooter is forcibly removed for a time, against his wishes. But there’s a world of difference in how the child experiences things, and what they learn.

In the first scenario the child is given no reason for the limit, and is not involved in any way in setting it. It is simply issued as an order. And the warning is issued as a threat – if you don’t follow my orders I’ll make you suffer. The follow through puts all the emphasis on the child’s behaviour. They are ‘naughty’, it’s their own fault that they now feel upset, and as such have no right to express it. They perceive that their parent doesn’t care about their feelings and is not on their side. They learn that they are a bad person, that their feelings don’t matter, and that their parent is willing to cause them pain in order to control them.

In the second scenario the parent presents themselves as an ally. The emphasis is on caring about the child – about both their safety and their feelings. The child learns that they are loved, that their parent takes their feelings and wishes seriously, but that they will do what has to be done to keep them safe, and are serious about certain limits.

It’s true that sometimes children will just deliberately push boundaries. This is normal and does not make them ‘bad’, so there’s still no reason to punish them. All the more reason to emphasise that we care about them enough to hold those boundaries and keep them safe. And this is best done by showing empathy and affection whilst still maintaining limits. There could be other underlying issues that my child is storing up that’s causing him to push my buttons in this way. Perhaps he just needs to have a good cry and is looking for an excuse to have one.

Enforcing a limit is not the same as issuing a punishment. It’s how we set it, how we speak and respond to our children that makes for a healthy relationship. Empathy and love rather than anger and rejection send an entirely different message and lay the foundations for a much healthier, happier relationship to build on for the future.

With thanks to my gentle parenting neighbour for her positive inspiration for this post.

Pressing pause

June 13, 2013

I recently went to hear Dr Dan Siegel speaking at a conference on “The Mindsight Approach to Parenting”. The focus of his talk was unusual I thought. He talked, as I expected, about the mind. But here’s the thing; it wasn’t about my child’s mind. It was about mine.

I’ve spent a great deal of time learning about how babies’ brains develop, why toddlers have tantrums, what children can and can’t understand at certain ages, how children develop and manage their feelings, and why they might behave in certain ways etc etc. And I reckon I’ve also learnt  a fair bit about how to  respond to and treat children accordingly. So I know about validating feelings, being empathetic, not using punishments, the need to stay connected, what probably is and isn’t the right thing to say etc etc. I even write a blog about it.

So why, I often ask myself, do I sometimes hear words coming from my own mouth that I know are the opposite of what I should be saying, that I know will only make things worse, that I know will hurt my child’s feelings, that I know are not modelling the kind of person I want my child to be? It’s as if there’s some other person inside me saying these words on my behalf, but without my approval, and against my wishes. What the hell?

That’s where my own brain comes into the equation.

When I was preparing for the arrival of my child, I was having a conversation with someone about how I might deal with difficult behaviour. (Of course, I had some very clear ideas, all of which have been long forgotten). “They really can take you places you didn’t know you could go”, this person told me. And she didn’t mean nice places.  I thought this sounded a little, er, negative. Now I know exactly what she was talking about.

Never, before becoming a parent, had I experienced that moment when my patience is so completely drained, my anger and frustration so aroused, and I just totally lose it. It’s quite sudden, like a bomb exploding. I think all parents must know what I’m talking about – at least all the ones I’ve spoken to do, which is in some way reassuring.

So, what to do about it?


When things go wrong, the plus side is that we can learn from them. What situation or set of circumstances led your child to behave in such a way that made you snap? Is there any way to do things differently next time?

If something’s a daily battle, do something about it. Try a different strategy, a different approach. Is your child going to magically change their behaviour in this same situation tomorrow? Probably not. Change the situation not the child.

See my posts here and here for some approaches, and strategies on gaining cooperation.

But to some extent, I think we have to accept that despite our best efforts and intentions, we all lose it occasionally….

pausePress pause

OK, so the prevention bit didn’t work this time and you’ve totally lost it. Press pause.

The important thing to understand is that it’s impossible to parent when we’re in a reactive state. The rational, thinking part of the brain simply isn’t functioning properly. Until you’ve really calmed down, don’t even try to respond.

Don’t speak. Anything you say is unlikely to be helpful at this stage. More likely to be the opposite. Don’t let those words come out of your mouth that you’ll later regret . Button it.

Dr Siegel also suggests putting your arms behind your back to help suppress any urge to push, pull or otherwise be more rough with your child than you would like.

We need to be able to recognise when we’re in this reactive state in order to then be able to stop ourselves saying or doing things that we know to be inappropriate and unhelpful. When a child behaves in a way that makes us really mad, we might need to take some immediate steps to keep them safe, but we don’t always need to say or do anything else right away. Wait until you’re both calm. Often your child is more likely to be in a state of mind to listen and learn later on as well.

Make a repair

If the pause button doesn’t work and your anger gets the better of you, it’s important to do what Dr Siegel refers to as ‘making a repair’. A repair to our relationship and connection with our child. When we yell, are rough with, or say unkind things to our children, we lose that connection with them, and when connection isn’t there, the things our children do that make us mad are more likely to keep happening.

So when you’ve calmed down, go to your child and apologise. And make this unconditional. “I’m sorry I yelled, but you made me really mad” won’t cut it. Just apologise. Admit that your behaviour was not OK. You can talk about your child’s behaviour, if you need to, later. It’s OK to admit to our children that we’re wrong sometimes. Nobody’s perfect, and saying sorry and making amends is important. Surely this is a lesson worth teaching?

Looking for discipline techniques that ‘work’? Forget it!

August 16, 2012

“If we don’t use rewards or punishments, what’s the alternative? What else can we use that works“.

I remember asking this question myself when I first began to make the shift in my attitude towards parenting. But the problem lies in the question itself. What do we mean by ‘works’?

Usually, I think we mean ‘get our children to do what we want, now’ or ‘Get a child to stop an unwanted behaviour, and sooner rather than later.’ So we’re measuring the success of a particular method by the immediate and perceivable outcome. Conventional discipline techniques like the naughty step are all about gaining obedience in the short-term. So when we ask, ‘What’s the alternative?’ I think we’re still too hung up on short-term obedience, or in finding ways to manipulate and change behaviour.

There are different strategies we can use to try to avoid power struggles and upsets, and gain cooperation. There are different ways we can respond when a child’s behaviour is unacceptable. But there are no quick fix solutions. We need to think long-term, and seek to guide our children into acceptable behaviour over time, not overnight. If, instead of looking for things that ‘work’ in the immediate term, we pay attention to the relationship, to being connected, and to meeting our child’s emotional needs, this in time will lead to fewer difficulties, and a fresher, more effective approach to the challenges we encounter – and often it’s a change in our own attitude, expectations, and approach that’s needed, rather than a change in our child’s behaviour.

Let go of control.

Too often we try to exert unnecessary levels of control over our children. Make sure there’s a good reason to say no. Often there is. But sometime it’s possible to come up with a compromise or solution that allows your child some autonomy. Save rules for things that really matter. Be mindful of safety without using it as an excuse. Respect a child’s need for what little freedom and autonomy we can afford them. Life as a young child is restrictive enough already.

Don’t be a helicopter or try to micro-manage. Step back a little and chill out. Allow that kids can be messy, forgetful, impulsive, and may not always like or enjoy what you expect them to.

Don’t expect, or even desire, blind and instant obedience.

Have realistic, age appropriate expectations.

Don’t expect a two-year-old to happily share toys with other children. Don’t expect a young child to follow you quietly round the supermarket without ever running in the aisles, attempting to touch anything on the shelves, or whining. Be reasonable, get real, and plan accordingly.

Furthermore, many unwanted behaviours will change over time as part of a child’s natural development, and don’t need to be interfered with by adults with “behaviour modification techniques”. Hitting will stop when a child develops greater impulse control and anger management. We can take steps to prevent it, step in quickly when it happens, gently teach and guide, but we can’t change things overnight.

Change the situation, not the child.

 “It takes a truly adaptive parent to sense the futility of harping on behaviour and to stop railing against what the parent cannot change……It takes a wise parent to focus on what the child is reacting to: the circumstances and situations surrounding the child.  In other words, a parent must first let go of trying to change the child.” Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Mate, M.D., “Hold On to Your Kids“.

Strive to prevent difficult behaviour from happening in the first place. If your child can’t manage certain situations, avoid them, or change them. Maybe they just can’t handle the supermarket. Can you shop online? Make it more fun for them? Leave them with dad and do it on a Saturday?

If something’s going wrong on a regular basis look at the circumstances surrounding it and for ways to change them.

Meltdown? Maybe they didn’t get enough one to one time with you today. Can you build some in tomorrow? Maybe they’re over-tired. Perhaps that after-school playdate wasn’t such a good idea. Every situation is different, and a different set of circumstances led to things turning out how they did. Things will go wrong sometimes. Learn from these without letting yourself or your child feel bad about it, and emerge stronger and wiser the next time.

Stay connected and give attention when it’s needed

“…I hate the phrase, “He was just looking for attention.” For years, the standard advice has been to ignore such behavior. I don’t get that. We don’t say, “He keeps asking for food, but just ignore him: he’s only saying that because he’s hungry.” We don’t say, “Your cup is empty; so I’ll make sure you don’t get a refill.” If someone is looking for attention that bad, I figure they must need some attention! If we give them enough of the good kind, they won’t be so desperate that they’ll settle for the bad kind”. Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., “Playful Parenting”.

Forget the old philosophy of not rewarding ‘bad behaviour’ with attention. If your child is attention-seeking, give them some attention. Then give them some more the next day so they won’t have to resort to ‘bad’ behaviour to get it in the first place. Simple.

Difficult behaviours stem from disconnection. Staying connected with your child is the single, most effective way to avoid these.

It’s not discipline techniques we need, conventional or not. It’s the bigger picture, the whole approach and attitude to parenting as an ongoing journey. There are no short cuts. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to any given situation, to any particular child or particular behaviour or issue. We’d all love there to be a magic step-by-step procedure to stop our children hitting, to make them share with other children, to make them get ready for bed every night without any fuss . Programs like Supernanny would have us believe there is. But there isn’t.

How do you get your child to do what you want?

February 14, 2012

I was asked this question by a father I met on a parenting course last week. He didn’t ask because he was marvelling at the incredible obedience of my child (who wasn’t there and who he’d never met), but I think because it was a question that had been puzzling him lately, and he wanted to hear what other parents had to say.

I found it difficult to give a short answer, which I guess sums it up really – there is no simple answer. So I’ve decided my answer deserves a blog post.

Without the use of bribes and threats, it’s all about strategies. Here are some of mine. None of them are guaranteed to work – that’s why it’s useful to have a few to try for different situations. But I believe they are, however, guaranteed to avoid jeopardising relationships, damaging a child’s self esteem, and creating long term problems.

Give choices

A child is much more likely to comply if they feel they have some control over the situation, have had their wishes consulted, and have been shown respect. Giving choices can achieve all this.

“Shall we put your shoes or coat on first?”

Or “Are you going to sit here or here for shoes on?”

Note that the child does not have overall choice about everything – they don’t have a choice about whether or not they’re going out – the adult retains overall control but gives the child choices within this. Let’s face it – children have very little choice over what happens to them each day. Giving choices where possible can help alleviate feelings of powerlessness and frustration and feed a child’s growing desire for independence. See my previous post on this strategy. 

Give information not commands

A subtle re-phrasing can sometimes be all that’s needed. So instead of “Put your shoes on”;

“We need to put our shoes on now so we can go out.”

“It’s time to put our shoes on.”

“It’s time to go out. Your shoes are ready at the bottom of the stairs.”

Again, I’ve written another post just on this strategy. Don’t knock it just yet – it’s surprising how well it can work.

Be playful and stay connected

This is probably my favourite one, and the one with which I have the most success. Be silly, make a joke, make things fun.

“Let’s race to see who can put their shoes on first.”

“We’re going on an adventure. Let’s get our special adventure shoes on.” Elaborate, create themes ad hoc.

Make silly noises as you put your shoes on and challenge your child to make some of their own, do a silly shoes-on dance or song, get creative, have fun and giggle!

Playfulness brings us to our child’s level and keeps us connected with them. Connection is the key to cooperation – well, to everything really.

This strategy is on my list of topics for future posts. In the meantime, read Lawrence Cohen’s “Playful Parenting”. Brilliant.

Give warnings

Give your child a chance to shift gears. If they’re in the middle of something, don’t expect them to drop everything any more than you would want to if you were in the middle of something.  Give some warnings, explain what’s happening next, and when they can return to what they’re doing now. Make a connection with them before trying to get them to comply.


If your child protests, cries, gets upset – validate, don’t scold.

“You were having fun doing that and now we have to go out. That must be hard. You’re feeling upset about this etc…”

Showing a child we’re on their side and understand is far more to likely to head off a major power struggle or meltdown.

Do it yourself

Don’t obsess about what age your child should or should not be doing things themselves. Just put their shoes on for them if this is easier. Nicely, whilst talking or joking with them, and making eye contact.

No, you will not still be doing this when they’re a teenager.  You just won’t. Really.

These strategies may sound unrealistic to some, but the most important thing I’ve discovered is that once I made the shift in attitude away from that of expecting instant compliance and blind obedience, and once I dispensed with using any bribes or threats, I found these strategies worked better simply because I was coming up against less resistance in the first place.

Difficult behaviour usually stems from disconnection. Playfulness, empathy, patience, understanding and respect will keep you connected whilst punishment and reward systems won’t.

Please share what strategies have worked for you.


January 12, 2012

There are no step by step guides, no rights and wrongs, no quick fixes or easy solutions when it comes to parenting, especially, I find, when it comes to parenting without the use of rewards or punishments.  It’s really about strategies, having lots of them up our sleeves, and judging the right time to use them.

One strategy I find I use many times every day is that of giving choices.  This has been an essential tool for me when it comes to gaining the cooperation of my control-crazy child.  “Just tell him” just doesn’t work.  It’s a red flag to a bull, an open invitation for power struggles and day long conflict.  Here are some examples:

Instead of “Come and put your shoes on”, try “Where are you going to sit to put your shoes on?”

Instead of “Brush your teeth and put your pyjamas on”, try “Do you want to brush your teeth now or in your pyjamas?”

Instead of just making his meal, give him a choice; “Do you want pasta or potatoes today?”

Instead of “Time to get out of the bath”, try “Are you ready to get out now, or would you like two more minutes?”

Open ended choices, however, I avoid;  “What would you like for lunch?”, followed by a list of suggestions, is usually followed by a list of “No”s.

All sound a bit tedious?  It can be!  And my neighbours may attest to hearing me on occasion yelling at the top of my voice “Oh for God’s sake just put your pyjamas on!” or similar, especially towards the end of the day.  However, overall, I’d say it’s a lot less exhausting, unpleasant, and remarkably quicker than the “just do what I say” approach.  Power struggles can be time consuming as well as exhausting and unpleasant.  Those two extra minutes in the bath are nothing compared to what could have been.

Some parents worry that giving choices leads a child to expect them all the time and means they will never do as they’re told, which sometimes – actually a lot of the time – they just have to. But others assert that the more children feel respected, and the less they get bossed around, the more likely they will be to comply when we let them know they really need to.  Giving choices doesn’t mean complete anarchy.  There are still limits and boundaries.  You’ll notice the examples I gave are all of giving very limited choices.  But there is still a choice, and children appreciate this.

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish write in their book “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk“,

“It might seem inconsequential to ask a child whether he wants a half glass of milk or a whole, his toast light or dark; but to the child each small choice represents one more opportunity to exert some control over his own life.  There is so much a child must do that it’s not hard to understand why he becomes resentful and balky.”

Another great benefit, aside from gaining cooperation, is that choices make children feel respected – they feel that their wishes have been consulted, that they are part of the decision making process, that their feelings are important, and likewise that they are an important and respected member of the family.  All good things for a connected relationship and for a child’s self esteem.

Give information, not commands

August 11, 2011

One of many excellent tips I’ve picked up from Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book, “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk“, is that of engaging a child’s cooperation by giving them information they can choose to act upon.  I’ve been fascintated and really quite amazed at how well this works.

One example is when my son was outside throwing a stick around right by a window. Instead of the instinctive “Stop doing that” I tried “If the stick hits the window, the window could break”.  He stopped, thought for a moment, then said “I’ll throw it over here” and moved into an open space.  (Of course, many parents would simply say they can’t throw the stick at all, but I’ll save that for another post!)  Since then there have been numerous similar examples.  “The fridge door is open” instead of “Shut the fridge door”  (he’s already had the lecture about letting the cold air out etc), “We can’t leave until you’re in your car seat”, and so on.

The beauty of this subtle approach is not just that it usually gets the child to do what you want, but they do it without feeling bossed around, but feeling that they have made a choice; to do the right thing based on the information they have been given.  Surely this has to be better for a child’s developing sense of autonomy and positive self image.

Think about the number of times your child is told what to do every day, day in day out, and how little choice they really have over what happens to them each day.  Anything you can do to alleviate this is bound to be welcomed.

I also like this approach as it is a great example of an attitude towards children and parenting that moves away from that of power and submission; that the only lesson children need to learn is to do as they’re told, and that instead, respects the child, and taps into their basic instinct and desire to please, casting the parent in the role of teacher, not dictator.